Let’s throw it back to Greek mythology for a second. Particularly, the story of Sisyphus. If you’re not privy to the aforementioned tale, the king of Ephyra was advantageously deceitful. Angering Zeus so much so that Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Once at the top, the solid sphere of rock fell back to the base of the hill every time.
For former 25-year NBA referee Monty McCutchen, that recurring metaphorical journey has become a staple pillar in his weekly meetings with the League’s Referee Development Program. Perfection is impossible as an NBA official, but striving for excellence is always the case. And those inevitable mistakes, they lead to growth. It’s an aspect McCutchen is currently instilling within the program’s six proteges.
“When you realize you don’t have to be perfect, but that you are willing to push the rock up the mountain every day – every single day – then the pressure becomes an internal dialogue about how you personally want to achieve excellence,” McCutchen tells SLAM. “Not, whether I was perfect in Golden State last night or Oklahoma City or Memphis. And when I make a mistake, I’m going to meet it head-on and try to grow out of it. Training is what overcomes pressure.”
The NBA’s Referee Development Program was once an avenue for the League to attract former players to the profession. Just a few years ago, the program received a revitalized initiative centered on cultivating the next generation of officials.
Intended for up-and-coming referees looking to gain the skills and foundation necessary for a career in the L, hundreds of thousands of hopefuls applied for the three-year program in 2021. Through rigorous assessments and interviews, only six trainees were selected for the third RDP class.
Leaving their homes and former jobs for the opportunity the program presented, each trainee made the move to New York City where the NBA’s corporate headquarters are located. On top of their weekly game assignments, the trainees are required to work within the League’s Basketball Operations floor on 5th avenue from Tuesday to Thursday each week.
The 20th floor of the Olympic Tower in mid-town Manhattan is packed full of basketball expertise. Around the corner, you could bump into Executive VP of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars with a nugget of knowledge. Down the hall, you can find President of League Operations Byron Spruell with a word of advice and a warm smile.
For three days out of the week, the trainees are submerged within the bustling Basketball Operations floor that McCutchen currently occupies on our Monday morning Zoom call in early March.
“The RDPs learn the visual syntax of our language. And they’re hearing this all day long, through all the different discussions that we have,” McCutchen explains. “By having them in the office it allows for a much more osmosis type of learning.”
Televisions take up nearly every inch of wall space. Conference rooms are wrapped in NBA logos and player imagery. A collection of signed basketballs line a myriad of shelves and decorative tables. And of course, basketball games are constantly playing. Even the bathrooms have screens positioned above urinals and toilets.
“This place is basketball heaven,” Dominique Harris says, one of the six trainees enrolled in the program. “There’s not a second that you can’t learn something here.”
Each week every member of the program meets personally with McCutchen to review film of their past games. It’s a collaborative session, one where McCutchen builds on glimpses of success while instructing on missed opportunities to be better.
Are you in the right spot to read a foul correctly? When a shot goes up, did your eyes go from the wrist to the feet to your secondary responsibilities with the baseline official? In that order? Visual sequencing and repeating the same motions are what ingrain the group with the confidence and know-how necessary for the next step. The mundane is vitally necessary.
“I found if you don’t create an internal procedure for yourself and how to handle situations, a lot of times little small details can be left out and it can be a big part of the game,” Cynthia Do tells SLAM – who quit her engineering job to move to NYC for the program.
Appointed as the Senior VP and Head of Referee Development and Training in 2017, McCutchen knows it’s his responsibility to provide the group with honest feedback. “One of the things that we are committed toward is this idea of radical candor, delivered compassionately,” he adds.
Constant exposure to your mistakes, however, can easily take a toll on your mental. With all the external pressures of being assessed and watched while fine-tuning flaws, “you have to balance how you separate, this is my job, and this is me, and my mistakes do not define me,” Do says.
Currently 13 months into the three-year program, resources for the trainees run as rife as the amount of rules and regulations to master. Staten Island native Ashley Olsen has been keen to pick the brains of former officials in the Operations Department. Learning their different philosophies, ways of teaching and experience.
After finishing her playing career at Wagner College, Olsen caught the refereeing bug from her old middle school teacher. Working high school games in her hometown, the former Northeast Conference Free Throw Champ began attending grassroots camps where she met a few of the women a part of the inaugural RDP cohort, including current G-League official Kesley Reynolds.
Once introduced to the application, she dove head-first into the pool of opportunity.
“As a referee, we have to be able to run the game, which means moving it along as best we can without disruption. Managing any disruptive plays we may have, having quarter-by-quarter awareness, knowing this team just went on a run, let’s see how this team responds,” Olsen explains of her most valuable takeaway thus far.
All six individuals share one common thread; a love for the game was instilled at a young age. Whether they hooped at the Division 1 level, extended they’re playing days in college rec leagues or coincidentally, are the sons of professional referees, that passion has blossomed into a guardian-like stature to uphold the values of the game through officiating.
For some, like Jacqui Dover, the culture of refereeing here in the states has presented a learning curve for the Gold Coast, Australian native. Dover played in a semi-professional league until a dislocated shoulder pushed her into picking up a whistle while rehabbing. Working her way up over the years, she’s since received appointments in the FIBA World Cup U17 Games alongside the NBL and WNBL – shout out to the good people at the Illawarra Hawks.
The nuances, mechanics and terminology are all new, and so is the continent. When the group was invited to the NBA’s preseason week, she walked out on the first day with over 30 pages of notes.
The vast amount of material presented isn’t the only foundation being built upon, as each trainee was tasked by both McCutchen and veteran NBA referee and Referee Association Board Member James Capers to soak up their environment.
Having run the replay center for the NBL, the NBA’s own center of operations has been a main source of building her acuity.
“That’s something I always find really valuable to be in the room to see games live and how that operates on the back end,” Dover tells SLAM. “It’s all just like a nice ref nerd heaven.”
“You hear how we’re addressing issues in and amongst the league,” McCutchen adds of the office’s atmosphere. “You hear my commentary in various meetings. You hear the hallway and the water talk in the lunchroom and we talk refereeing at naueseum around here.”
Dover isn’t the only international representation within the diverse group. Carlos Ortega Peralta hails from Ecuador. His mother and grandmother are both well-accustomed to the pebble grain leather ball, making the game inescapable in the best way possible.
However, it was the influence of his father’s profession—who currently referees in the coastal South African country—that pushed him into wearing the stripes. After asserting his skillset, Ortega Peralta began officiating in the FIBA Ameri Cup while sharing a few games together with his pops during the country’s National Championships.
He describes the atmosphere on the floor as a machine. The shift in terms, and rules, let alone the language, have all been an adjustment. One he’s learned to hone through McCutchen’s reference of Sysyphus’ daily grind up the hill.
“Everything is about knowledge because when you have more knowledge, you have more control of the game you have more control of you,” Ortega Peralta tells SLAM.
Carlos isn’t the only member with referee blood running through his veins. The older generations may recognize the last name of Jafar Kinsey, son of former NBA official of 14 years Jim Kinsey.
After playing at the University of Central Missouri and the University of North Dakota, Kinsey’s father nudged him onto the idea of crafting a career from the hardwood on the sidelines.
Filling in his father’s footsteps, one of Kinsey’s biggest influences through the past year plus has been one of his father’s former partners, James Capers. Described as the workhorse of the program, Capers is just as hands-on with the group as McCutchen. Throughout each interview with the group, Capers’ name is brought up. His influence and expertise are felt immensely.
“Having someone like that in your corner who’s gonna support you through the ups and downs and motivate you to be a better person, as well as a referee, it goes a long way,” Kinsey tells SLAM. “He’s someone you want to work with and make proud of at the end of the day.”
The program wouldn’t be complete, of course, if the group’s proficiency and skills weren’t tested. During the Basketball Without Borders event during this past All-Star Weekend, the group got to flash their acumen in front of McCutchen, Capers and other assessment personnel.
The chance to impress isn’t taken lightly, especially knowing the more than rigorous hiring process that succeeds the program remains faintly in the distance.
Throughout a year-long assessment of over 3,000 referees, only the top 100 are placed into the League’s grassroots system, including those underneath the RDP banner. Following further evaluations, the top 50 are elevated to a mid-level camp. Then, only 30 are invited to the elite camp where anywhere from four to thirteen are hired as G-League officials.
Of the hundreds of available referees within the NBA’s developmental league, only one in five advances to either the work in WNBA or NBA.
The odds may be daunting, but “I think they all really believe I want them to make it,” McCutchen tells SLAM. “And so from that standpoint, we create a culture in which honest exchanges take place. And that’s the groundwork for dealing with pressure.”
Pressure is a sentiment Dominique Harris has become more than acquainted with through the game. Receiving a scholarship to Gonzaga out of Redondo Union, Harris jokes that she’s been involved in every aspect of basketball from the Referee Operations floor on Zoom.
Receiving an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism and a graduate degree in sports management, Harris’ roots in the League were sewn as an intern for the Clippers in college where she connected with now associate VP of Referee Development George Tolliver.
After freelancing, doing some play-by-play and serving as the head coach for several girl’s high school basketball programs in the LA area, Tolliver was able to convince Harris to apply for the 2017 class. She bombed it. But when 2021 came around, Harris lept at the second chance and made the cut.
While the group is only required to be within the office three days out of the week, Harris admits she’s taking full advantage of the extensive amount of resources present, clocking into the office from Monday through Friday.
“I have a feel for the game that I don’t think I would have if I didn’t play or if I didn’t call a game. If I didn’t see it out of all these different lenses, I wouldn’t have this perspective,” Harris tells SLAM of her unique viewpoint.
Emulating the greats while remaining true to herself has been a certified solution for Harris as she rolls the boulder up the hill daily.
“It’s been an amazing journey. Everyone has adversities in their life, but in my life, I had a situation where it kind of took my voice. And refereeing gave me my voice back, it gave me courage. Honestly, refereeing brought me back to me, so I don’t imagine my life without it,” Harris tells SLAM.
The Referee Development Program not only readies the next crop of basketball officials but simultaneously removes some of the antiquated myths about the profession. Each and every day the group rolls up their sleeves and fall’s deeper in love with their individual journeys towards becoming a great referee.
The end goal will always be to referee on an NBA court. In the meantime, McCutchen and Capers are hammering down on the routines and habits the group will rely on years down the road. And the boulder continues to roll.
“If we allow them to learn the craft, then we really believe that they’re gonna go do good work and serve basketball, wherever that may end up,” McCutchen tells SLAM. “This class, in particular, has been wide-eyed in the best possible connotation of that phrase. They are so eager to learn, and so receptive to what good officiating looks like.”